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When Beggars Die

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“The fire-eyed maid of smoky war,” Nezumi murmured, dry and chapped lips parting for the first time in an hour, the movement of his jaw jostling the binoculars he’d held so steadily during that time, “All hot and bleeding will we offer them.” After another moment of silence, he shrugged and let out a characteristic chuckle. Sometimes a laugh was needed to reset the nerves. It helped to find humour in the morbid. “More like burning eyes and runny noses. And then, of course, flooding lungs and degenerating muscles, but the Bard never got more serious than pufferfish venom and henbane. Imagine the terror he would wreak in a modern world.” The young man glanced sideways at his companion. The boy, as if prompted by his gaze, looked back.

“Do you always quote Shakespeare before committing acts of terrorism?” Nezumi shrugged, pleased that he’d recognized the quote’s author.

“We’ve gotten to know each other pretty well, you tell me.” He gazed back through his binoculars at the small grate in the wall that’d been the target of his observation for the last fortnight, at a distance, and the last five hours, at a much closer range. It was no wider than a foot, with seven, he’d counted them over and over, rusted metal bars running vertically along its length, disappearing into murky, oil sheened water two feet from the top of the grate. In every way, it was an ordinary storm drain. And that’s what bothered Nezumi. Or, more accurately, what roused his suspicion was that a perfectly average storm drain warranted a sentry. It had taken a solid week of watching and pondering before Shion had finally made an observation that Neuzmi pretended he’d known all along; the water was flowing into the city, sluggishly, but flowing all the same. Crawling may have been a more accurate term. He was pretty sure it was a temporary state, one that would be fixed as soon as the bureaucracy deemed it an appropriate time to divert funds to municipalities. But the inner workings of the wastewater system were not of interest to him. What was of interest was that there was a breach, a tiny tear in the thick skin of the holy city. A tiny cut was enough to kill with infection. He grinned.

“Do you know what play it’s from?” Nezumi asked out of curiosity, not taking his eyes off of the grate. He could still make out the dark smudge of the guard in the sun’s waning light. Dusk was creeping up around the wall, and the sun would set fully within the hour.

Shion cleared his throat and mumbled, “One of the histories? Maybe a Henry play?” His voice sounded thick. Maybe he was getting tired. Nezumi took another look at him and noticed he was shivering. Of course he was, the brisk night air cut through his thin clothes. Silently, Nezumi cursed himself for not making him dress heavier. Quietly shrugging himself out of his jacket, he pushed the leather garment to Shion, who took it wordlessly, for once holding his tongue about the sweat and dead cow smell it held.

“Henry IV, Part 1.” Nezumi said, setting down his binoculars and crossing his arms on the ground in front of him, resting his chin on them and watching their target with his naked eyes. “Act 4, scene I.” Without his jacket he could feel the rough, slightly damp stone underneath him pressing into his stomach. How has Shion laid this unprotected for so long without complaint? Nezumi felt as though his shell had been stripped away.

“I can hear you pronouncing the Roman numerals.” Shion said with more levity than his voice had held all day. His statement was punctuated with a sneeze. Curses. He should’ve gotten the jacket earlier. Sniffling and wiping the sleeve of Nezumi’s jacket across his nose, he nodded down the slope toward the grate. “Explain one last time what we’re doing and why we’re doing it?” He held out his hand and Nezumi gave him the binoculars. In the moment that their fingers brushed against each other, he was struck by how warm Shion’s skin felt. Almost ablaze.

Shaking his head and telling himself it was probably just in comparison to not touching anything except cold stone and metal that sucked the heat away from him, he settled his arms back down on the stone in front of himself, nestling deep into his cowl against the chill.

Don’t get so excited.

“Simple biologic weapon. Released into the water system, it’ll spread pretty quick. Of course, seeing as this doesn’t look like the drinking water supply I’m not certain it’ll work but…” He shook his head, stifling a yawn, “Any breach with a toxin like this will have some effect, even if it’s not the monumental body count I’d hoped for. I didn’t spend a full month dodging rehearsal to concoct some mystic potion in a warehouse for nothing. We’re lucky we finished it in time to make use of this storm drain before they fix it.” Shion was silent a moment longer than Nezumi liked. “What is it?”

“Nothing.” Shion set the binoculars down and sniffed again. It wasn’t nothing. Nezumi eyed Shion suspiciously, wondered what he was hiding under that absent expression. What he wasn’t hiding was unease and fear. Nezumi sighed, noting the position of the sun. It was just about time. He rolled onto his back and reached deep into one of the pockets adorning his thigh, withdrawing a dented metal canister.

“I thought you knew what you were getting yourself into.” He said emotionlessly, pulling up respirator, a pair of leather gloves, and a pair of goggles from his pocket as well. The compound would be stable and non infectious until it bonded with water, but Nezumi hadn’t had the chance to test if the moisture in his mouth and lungs constituted enough to set off the toxic reaction. No chances. Affixing both the goggles and respirator in place, and yanking the leather gloves onto his hands, grateful for their warmth, he cracked open the metal canister, making sure the smaller glass vial was still snug inside. Satisfied it was, he set the canister on his stomach, tucked his arms behind his head, and waited just a while longer. It only took a second for his goggles to fog, after which he pulled them up to his forehead, holding his bangs off his face, and pulled the respirator down under his chin. It was too large and strangled him like an uncouth necklace.

Arranging it still didn’t give Shion enough time to answer. He rolled his head, newly free from the grip of the respirator, to the side to look at him. The red scar that wound around his body like a snake stood out starkly against his pale skin, skin that was looking paler by the second. “Not getting cold feet now, are you?”

Shion frowned and burrowed his face further into his crossed arms, thick leather of Nezumi’s jacket muffling his words almost incomprehensibly. “I’m just...Not sure it’s the right thing to do. Civilians and all…” A sneeze finished his sentence.

Nezumi bristled, not in the mood to talk ethics again, right before a strike. Still, he had to recognize that part of Shion still debated this, still didn’t want to blindly follow, still considered the human consequences. Maybe that’s what he loved about him. “Listen it’s-”

“I know, I know. You don’t need to spout idealism again.” Nezumi felt a chill go through him that had nothing to do with the sun’s absence. Shion had never said something like that to him before. His face fell into a stony expression.

“I-”

“No.”

“Shion-”

“It’s fine.” A chilly response. Another sniffle. He wasn’t crying was he? Is that what that’d all be about? Nezumi clamped a hand onto Shion’s arm, keeping his rising anger at bay only with effort.

“It’s not fine, you’re uncomfortable. You’re uncomfortable because you’ve kept your humanity.” He let out a little laugh, trying to lighten the mood. No doubt it had the opposite effect. “I know I don’t need to explain, but I’m going to. A little bit. I’ve not been totally honest about what this is all leading to, you know that, and I’m not going to explain that all right now, when we’re one raised voice away from our friend the sentry down there shooting us point blank and leaving us in that ditch.” Nezumi pointed behind him, over head at the grate. He did it subtly, trying not to raise a silhouette against the purple sky that would give away their position. He felt far too visible in his yellow undershirt, far more conspicuous than he ever felt in a dark leather coat. He continued in a lower voice, lisping every pronunciation of the letter S or a soft C so the sound wouldn’t travel through the still night air. “That grate leads into the city, that we know, but it leads specifically past government offices. Frankly I’m surprised they’ve let the backflow problems go on as long as it has. It’s not like the upper class to suffer a stinking inconvenience and reminder of what’s beyond the wall a second longer than they have to.” The young man watched for a reaction of some kind from Shion, a protest protecting his former compatriots. It seemed enough of the old Shion, bolstered with pride for his city, had died to allow the jibe to go unchallenged. “All that to say the only people we’ll be hurting is a few bigwigs sitting at the pinnacle of this toppling tower. It’s not the foundation but knocking the glittering cap off of the pyramid is enough to demoralize an empire.”

The silence between them was so complete in the vacuum following his words. Insects and animals had long since abandoned the swampy hollow of the drainage site, and Nezumi didn’t need a hydrologist to tell him it was a result of poisned water. Two weeks exposure was probably longer than advised by any medical professional, not that the young man had ever taken a word of advice from anyone who had a degree and got off on slicing up the human body, save the disgraced and bitter doctor he’d convinced to help him whip up a modern witch’s brew. The only sound that filled that quiet was his shallow breathing and Shion’s rasping inhalations, the sluggish drip drip dripping of slime slipping out of a pipe into a scummy puddle, and the faintest hum that came from the electric lights atop the city’s wall, now flicking to life in the darkness. The sentry was still in deep shadow, a shadow thrown into stark relief by the angle made between the wall and the lights. He’d given up his slow pacing sometime when Neumi hadn’t been watching him, opting to lean against the wall instead, gun tipped lazily next to him. It was apparent that he didn’t find the job of guarding the grate a particularly important or engaging assignment.

“Can you promise me no good people will get hurt?” Shion mumbled at last. The statement had the feeling like it had been meant to sound bold, strong, and full of conviction, but the words came out tired.

It’s late. Let’s get this over with.

“I’m not so heartless as to think every person leading your city is rotten to the core,” Nezumi said slowly, pulling his still partially fogged goggles down over his eyes and pausing before pulling up his respirator, “But, yes, I can promise you that no townspeople will get hurt.” He pulled up the breathing mask and clasped the metal canister with its more delicate glass vial in his gloved hand, rolling to his front and pushing himself up with his free hand, the toes of his boots sliding on the damp stone behind him. “Within a few percentage points of uncertainty.”

“What?”

But Nezumi was already gone, whipping his cowl up and around his face, covering as much of his light coloured shirt as he could. If he was being watched, he wagered it was by some college intern with a comfy job, cloistered in a warm and comfortable centre of operations, eyeing feeds from security cameras trained on the outside of the wall. If that was the case, there was precious little he could do about it. For what it was worth, he didn’t think the sentry was paying him any mind, given that he now had his chin resting on his crossed arms, propped onto his knees. Nezumi picked his way down the slick rocks, keeping to shadows cast behind large, jagged rocks. As soon as Nezumi drew nearer he heard quiet snoring. With a smirk, he whirled back around and scanned the rocks for where he knew Shion lay, and mimed a handgun with his fingers, aimed at the guard's head. He saw a trace of movement that he figured was a shake of the head, and turned his attention toward his target; the grate.

Silently stalking the few more feet to it, he dropped to one knee beside the wet slick of water creeping into the city through the grate, he cracked open the metal canister and gingerly withdrew the glass vial from within. He stared at the sickly green liquid glistening in the bottom of it, only a few drops compared to the stormwater system he was about to introduce it to, but that would be enough. Or at least it would be if he hadn’t been duped and if the science was solid and if he’d incubated the virus enough and if it managed to snake its way all the way past the inner filters and grates and if this problem stayed unfixed long enough for it to do all of that and if-

“Hold it right there, fella.” Came a deep, thickly accented voice from behind Nezumi, coupled with the distinct click of a gun, the old kind, the kind that still shot large, heavy, lead slugs. Was he holding it with one hand or two? That was important. He felt the cold metal of its barrel pressing into the back of his head, just below his ponytail. The first feeling one gets after having a gun pressed to their head isn’t, as you might expect, fear. It isn’t even hatred, or a sick feeling. Or at least, it wasn’t for Nezumi. It wasn’t his first time being at the business end of a firearm. What he felt was a wave of self admonishment.

Idiot. From his position, Shion was hidden among the rocks to his right and slightly behind him, the wall and grate on his left. There was no way he could take a look to see if his companion was safe without giving away his position. Please Shion, if you’ve ever made a good tactical choice, don’t play the hero. Stay where you are. Aloud, to the sentry, he said evenly, “You got me. I’m not moving.”

“Hands up where I can see them.” He could hardly pick up the words over the pounding of his heart in his ears. Every nerve was on fire. The gun jabbed a little harder. Not moving his head, Nezumi darted his gaze down at the vial nestled in his gloved hand. His hands were large and the vial was relatively small, but not small enough to be totally hidden. The guard would see it immediately if he held up his hands. Likely, then, that he’d take it and either confiscate it, which would squander a month’s worth of planning, or else crush it beneath his boot, exposing both of them. Neither was an attractive option.

Think.

He had to get it open and get it into the water and, ideally, not die doing so.

Nezumi settled on the worst plan he could have.

With a deep breath, he raised his arms slowly up part way, then with one violent motion that he choreographed in his mind in the single instant before he executed it, he crushed the vial in his gloved left hand, tore the glove off with his right hand, and threw it as far into the grate as he could, hearing the splash with a surge of pride. A second later a boot struck him solidly between the shoulder blades and his face careened into the the damp, foul smelling stone, spitting distance from the stream of filth, goggles first going askew and then slipping off entirely as he struggled. His eyes were wide and he was starting to lose grip of the icy calm he usually felt in situations that forced him to face his mortality. It was hard to breathe with the sentry’s boot crushing down on his back. He was going to break a rib. Nezumi’s hands scrambled wildly on the ground, trying to push himself up, trying to reach his knife, trying to do something. All he managed was scraping up the bare palm of his left hand and jamming his respirator under his jaw again, making it even harder to inhale. Within a few seconds, both of his arms were twisted behind him painfully, with the guard crouching with one knee on his back, pinning them there. He lay still, left cheek pressed to the ground, eyes wide and staring at his attacker. He was an idiot. He’d gotten cocky. He should’ve taken out the guard, or drawn him away, or stayed aware of the man’s movements. Something. He should have done something.

“Shit…” The guard reached out with one hand to push Nezumi’s bangs off of his face, other hand still occupied with holding him at gunpoint. He must have been a very strong man to be able to hold a gun that large so steadily with one hand. “You’re just a kid. Ain’t no older than my son…”

“I’m a misguided punk, sir.” Nezumi forced, regretting instantly that he’d opened his mouth, pressed against the ground as it was. The stone tasted foul. His arms were jerked further behind him, eliciting an unbidden grunt of pain from Nezumi.

“Don’t get smart with me, boy.” Apparently, paternal care wasn’t enough to distract the man from his current task of dealing with a security threat, though just minutes before he’d been most concerned with catching forty winks. “What was that you tossed in there, eh?” He demanded, grinding the sharp point of his knee into the base of his quarry's neck, “A grenade, was it? Planning to blow us all to smithereens, I shouldn’t wonder? Why hasn’t it gone off yet?” Nezumi set his jaw and closed his eyes, not replying. He needed to relax, needed to get this man to think he was no threat.

“You can talk to me or you can talk to the police, you can.” Getting no response and not letting up even a hair, he sighed. “Can’t say you seem like a good kid, I can’t, but I do hate sending you off to the police. Mighty shame, it is.” Nezumi heard rustling and assumed the sentry was reaching for a two way radio or some other way to call in backup.

I’ll find a chance to escape, so long as I know Shion can get away alright. He opened his eyes again and strained to see the jumble of rocks he knew Shion was hiding amongst. There he saw- No it couldn’t be. He saw movement. The fool was going to try and save him. But if he called out that would only put the boy in greater danger. It was a no win. There had to be some way to tell Shion to hold tight and just wait.

Suddenly, a loud, gruff bark cracked boomed through night air, startling both Nezumi and the guard. By the time the young man noticed the guard had let up for an instant he was already being pinned full force again.

“That didn’t sound good…” The sentry mumbled, the rustling of fabric telling Nezumi he was looking around for the source of the sound. “Musta been a huge hound, that. They prowl around the-”

The bark came again, louder this time, closer, and more wet sounding. This time, Nezumi took the chance he had and jerked his arms away from where they were pinned, planting his palms, left palm stinging madly, against the ground and thrusting his body up, as though doing a pushup. In doing so, he dislodged his attacker long enough to flip over and grab his knife from his right hip pocket in one swift motion. By this time the man had asserted that the greater threat lay not in whatever dog was barking from the darkness but from the miscreant he’d been holding captive and who now had his arms free, was wielding a knife, and looked very upset. He slammed the butt of his gun down into Nezumi’s chest, trying to scramble away furiously. The blow hurt, more than most things had hurt in his few short years, but Nezumi gritted his teeth and stuck his leg out, tripping the man up and halting his backward progress. He then launched himself up, pushing off of his burning left hand, blade in his right hand flicking out, a flash of silver in the dark night.

“This might be a little personal.” Nezumi almost apologized through tightly clamped teeth, swinging his right arm down as hard as he could, plunging the knife deep into the man’s chest. A splotch of red blossomed out, rapidly staining the light blue of his uniform. It wasn’t the most elegant attack, but it looked like it’d done the trick. The sentry stared, dumbfounded, at his chest as Nezumi scrambled to his feet and snatched up the large shotgun. It was heavier than he’d expected. He really did apologise, though not out loud, and not to the man but to his young son, as he pulled the trigger, blasting an uneven chuck out of the back of the man’s head.

The gun was also far louder than he could have imagined. Unsurprisingly, the man’s radio fizzled to life with a voice asking for a status update.

“Time to go.” Nezumi grunted, dropping the gun and sprinting back up to where Shion was waiting, pausing only a second to tear the respirator off his neck and up and over his head, letting it fall to the ground with a dull thud. It was a lot harder going up the slick rock with one hand skinned and an excruciatingly painful ache in his chest. At last he crested the last major tumble of rocks and vaulted to the flat place he’d left Shion. It was hard to tell in the dark but it looked as if the boy was curled up and shaking. Nezumi smiled a little, kneeling down and shaking his shoulder.

“A little cold, huh? Good thinking with the dog bark, but never, ever take a risk like that again, alright?”

When Shion turned his face to looked at Nezumi, it made him feel worse than he had all day. And he’d just poisoned a water supply with a deadly virus and blown a man’s head off with a shotgun, so that was saying a lot. His face was deadly pale, the red mark standing out far more sharply than it had before. His eyes, when he finally managed to open them, were bloodshot and watery, with that distinct quality eyes get when a fever is rampaging through the body. Each breath sounded painful and laboured, and as a cough raked the boy’s body Nezumi came to the correct conclusion that Shion hadn’t meant to bark at all, but had just happened to unleash a cough, a horrible cough, a cough that sounded like the bark of a great dog when he’d really meant to confront the guard like the optimistic and big hearted simpleton he was.

The fact that Shion had gotten this sick so fast, despite the warning signs from before, would have been cause enough for concern without the threat of a possible poisoning hanging in the back of Nezumi’s head. The fact was that his mind immediately raced through every time Shion could have possibly come in contact with the virus. Had it been on his clothes when he’d returned to their home one night? Had it clung to his skin? Had just the tips of his bangs brushed against a petri dish and then laid across Shion’s forehead for a moment too long? He couldn’t think straight. He couldn’t draw to mind any scenario that explained why Shion had gotten sick but he himself felt fine.

Then the words ‘immune carrier’ came to mind and Nezumi didn’t think anymore, he just bent to scoop Shion into his arms and ran, tripping over loose stones in the dark but always managing to catch himself before he fell all the way. The throbbing bruise on his chest became just a distant ache as he picked his way across the open expanse they’d crossed hours earlier, wishing it wasn’t quite so exposed, especially when he heard the distant shouts of city employees discovering the body of the sentry. There would be time enough later to think about how to cover his tracks, but for the moment all he needed was to run a little faster, to cover just a little more ground with each stride, to hold off his breathlessness for just a moment longer, just long enough to reach the crammed and messy hovel the two of them called home.

It seemed like an eternity and at the same time like just a few seconds before Nezumi was laying Shion down on his bed. He didn’t recall opening the door, didn’t even recall how he’d navigated the two of them through the shabby chanties the locals convinced themselves was worthy of the title of town. Now, as he sat panting and drenched in sweat, did he have time to think. At once he rose and filled a bowl with the luke warm water from a larger bucket sitting in the corner. He found a clean rag and soaked it, then returned to Shion’s side and wiped his face clean of sweat and grim and some blood that he was sure was from his bleeding left hand. Or from man he’d killed.

Shion’s eyes fluttered open like two butterflies newly emerging from cocoons. “Nez…”

“Shhh…” Nezumi hushed, heart leaping to his throat. He knew ten ways to kill a man with a piece of twine. He could quote every soliloquy from every tragedy Shakespeare had ever written. He had, countless times, performed to a sell out crowd. But never in his sixteen years had Nezumi treated someone who was sick. He didn’t know what to do, and not knowing made him scared. It made his terrified. “Don’t try to talk. You’re very sick. I think-” Nezumi’s voice cracked and he swallowed hard, blinking moisture from his eyes. It’d been so long since he’d cried real tears, not ones shed for a performance, that the feeling was startling. “I think...The virus…” He didn’t finish the thought but instead turned away suddenly, opening the first book he could get his hands on and tearing a blank page from the back of it. He snatched up a pen and scrawled a hasty message. He snapped his fingers and Cravat appeared, seemingly from nowhere. He nosed at Shion’s feverish hand before turning his tiny eyes on Nezumi. His master quickly folded up the page and held it out.

“Bring this to the doctor, the one you’ve smelled on me for a month now.” The rat took the paper in its tiny mouth and took a moment to scurry up Nezumi’s arm, sniff his hair, and then bolt for the door.

“I’ve always thought...They’re the most...Remarkable...Creatures. Your rats…” Shion said weakly, each breath seeming to come with a great effort. Nezumi turned his attention back on his charge and hushed him again, pressing a finger to the boy’s lips. It wasn’t a secret that Nezumi was the stronger of the two, but even Shion had never looked as weak as he did just then, seemingly dwarfed by the bed around him.

Nezumi leaned forward, pressing his lips against Shion’s forehead. He could feel the heat of his fever burning, even more than he had before. Clasping the other’s hand tightly, he laid his head against his thin chest and listened to the sound of a human heart beating far faster than it should at rest.

“You shouldn’t...You’ll...Get sick...Too…” Shion managed. His statement was met by a shake of the head.

“If I tracked it in and gave it to you then I’m immune to it. The doctor said that could happen. That some people are just...Immune.” Now that he was fearing for Shion’s life and not his as well, the pangs from the injuries he’d sustained came flooding to him all at once. His left hand was bleeding badly, but it looked like it was just from his struggling on the rock and not from shattering the vial in his palm. His chin was scraped up where it’d been ground into the stone, and he tasted blood, likely from accidentally biting the inside of his cheek in the struggle. The worst, by far, was the dull throbbing in his chest, smack dab in the middle, over his sternum. After a long while, he pulled away from Shion and stood up, turning away to pull off his shirt and check the damage in the reflection of his mirror. There was a horrible bruise spreading out from the gun butt shaped wound, but a few gentle prods with his fingertips assured him the bone wasn’t broken.

It was in this state, shirtless and poking at his chest, that the doctor found Nezumi when he swung open the unlocked door and stepped into the room. He raised an eyebrow curiously as Nezumi whirled about and covered the distance between them in two long strides. Seizing the front of the man’s tattered lab coat, which he insisted on wearing for reasons unknown to the young man, Nezumi spun him about and pinned him to the wall, face inches away from the doctor’s.

“What went wrong?” Nezumi hissed, inadvertandtly spiting in the much older man’s face, “You told me we were exercising the most caution, you told me the vial was perfectly sealed, you told me there was no chance for outside infection so what. Went. Wrong.”

The man was shaken, that much was clear from his wide eyed stare and stutter. What was impressive was the speed with which he pulled himself together and drew himself up to his full and unimpressive height.

“Will you let me examine my patient?” He asked with surprising calm. Nezumi reminded himself that the man had been cast beyond the wall for many of the same reasons he had; not fitting in neatly like a gear in a world of twisted morals was almost enough to make one a saint.

He let go. The doctor frowned at him and straightened out his coat, walking over to the bed and sitting down next to it, opening his almost comically large black bag.

Nezumi idled a few paces off, not sure what to do with himself. He wasn’t used to not being the one in control. For starters, he pulled his shirt back on, then meandered around the small area that served as their kitchen, boiling water for tea. Tea was good for sick people, right? But maybe this virus couldn’t even be held at bay by leafs thrown in hot water. At least, the water was supposed to be hot, but when Nezumi brought three mugs over to the doctor, who took one graciously and took a sip, all he got in return was a strange look. He took a drink himself and surmised that he’d been so out of sorts that he’d merely thrown a few pinches of leaves into room temperature water. He walked back to the stove. It wasn’t even warm.

Consigning himself to be a nervous wreck, he walked back over and sat on the opposite side of the bed from the doctor, burying his face into the sheets and seizing Shion’s hand again. “You might want to back off, unless you want to get sick as well.” The doctor said at long last, removing a tongue compress from Shion’s mouth. Shion coughed again, a great, wet, barking cough. He seemed to not have the strength to draw his arm across his face to block it. The doctor leaned back with a look of professional concern.

“I’m immune to the virus, I think.” Nezumi muttered, angling his face so his eyes peeked up over Shion’s chest, glaring at the doctor, “Or I would have gotten sick from whatever brought it in here to him. Is there a cure? You’d better hope you made an antidote because if you didn’t you’ll envy the man who stood between me and the drop point” His words were almost a growl, deep and cold and precise, eyes not leaving the doctor’s. The man looked oddly calm.

“This isn’t the virus we concocted.” He said simply, packing his tools up into his large black bag. “The one-” The doctor was interrupted by another cough. Pausing his words further, he helped Shion sit up, stuffing pillows behind him to keep him upright. He looked like a porcelain doll that way. “The one we made does not have an antidote. However,” he held up his finger for silence as Nezumi opened his mouth, “That one targets very specific systems in the human body. This…” He gestured vaguely at his charge as he stood, hefting his bag. “This appears to be a general overtaking of the immune system.” Nezumi stared at him blankly. The doctor sighed. Nezumi didn’t like that; he liked being the smartest in the room. “It’s a rhinovirus.” Apparently the confusion and derision didn’t slip off of the young man’s face as he also stood, hand inching toward his knife. It was still dirty, blood soaking through his pocket in the form of a constellation of blood splotches. The word virus, or the suffix at least, was enough to make his skin crawl.

“The common cold.” The voice was so weak and so unexpected that both the doctor and Nezumi whipped around to look at its source. Shion’s eyes were open a little wider that they had been, but he hadn’t lifted his head. He stifled a cough and drew the heavy blankets around himself more tightly, sniffling. He smiled at Nezumi the best he could, and the result was heartbreaking. “I’m pretty smart... remember? At least...with books.” The boy had to pause to catch his breath, but continued valiantly, “I’m fine...At least...Marginally. It’s a...A pretty bad one…” He coughed again and was about to finish speaking when the doctor held up his hand for silence.

“You need to rest. Sleep.” The older man ushered Nezumi into the small kitchen, pulling a small notepad from his breast pocket and scrawling on it. Apparently even disgraced, illegal doctors had terrible handwriting. As he wrote, he talked. “The virus we concocted wasn’t complete until early yesterday morning, yes?” Nezumi nodded, hands more fidgety that they’d ever been. He wished he could get ahold of himself, kept telling himself he was a cold and hard hearted person, one who couldn’t afford to be shaken by something like this. “This one has been incubating in the boy’s system for three days at least, I’d say. The um...The symptoms, too...They’re slightly different.” He looked up from his notepad to fix his gaze on Nezumi, but Nezumi got the sense he was looking through, not at, him, in the way people sometimes do when they’re trying very hard to remember something. The jolt of memory apparently hit him because he went back to scrawling messily. “This is actually worse than what we can expect a few days after introduction to the water system.”

“This is worse?” Nezumi asked, flabbergasted, remembering all the symptoms he and the good doctor had discussed when concocting their weapon. It was worse than that?

“At first, yes.” The man finished writing, tore out the page, and returned the notepad to its place in his breast pocket. “It will worsen, or I mean the city virus will, within a week. The symptoms do begin like those of a common cold, and then get much, much worse, as we discussed,” He handed the paper to Nezumi for him to discern later. “But worry not, your beau will be just fine in a week or so.” The doctor patted Nezumi’s shoulder as he passed him on his way out. “Those are care instructions. Don’t send another rat to me if you have a problem because I don’t really care and I won’t come help. Frankly I’m only here for fear that you’d mucked up the virus and we’d have a full epidemic on our hands.” He yawned and paused in the doorway, looking back over his shoulder and meeting the young man’s narrowed eyes.

“You talk too much, you old codger.” He bit his tongue before unleashing another insult and tore his gaze away, looking determinedly at the scuffed and grimy toes of his boots. “Th-thank you.” He couldn’t remember the last time his ears had burned like that, or the last time he’d genuinely thanked someone. Surprisingly, his gratitude was met with a light, airy laugh.

“Also, you may not be nearly as immune as you thought.” Nezumi jerked his gaze up but the doctor was already picking his way back over the rubble from which he’d come.

“Old gaffer…” he muttered, squinting down at the page in his hand as he shut the door and went about setting water to boil, properly this time. So far as he could tell, the instructions consisted mostly of letting Shion sleep a lot, propping him up so he could breathe, and only feeding him light food. There seemed to be a bit in there about the third siege of Rome but surely that was just the result of the man’s poor handwriting.

With water on the stove, Nezumi kicked off his boots and hung his cowl in its place by the door. He quietly made his way over to Shion and sat gently on the edge of his bed. He seemed to be asleep, or at least too tired to make any move of wakefulness.

“You gave me a damn fright, idiot.” He said softly, leaning over Shion and pressing his hand against his forehead. The doctor hadn’t given him any medicine, so he still felt burning hot.

Nezumi sighed and looked again at Shion’s face, surprised to find his eyes met. And, strangely, Shion was smiling.

“My bad.” He whispered, lips scarcely moving.

“Idiot.” Nezumi repeated leaning down to softly kiss Shion’s feverish lips, then to lay down fully next to him, lifting the edge of his blanket and wiggling his way underneath, right up next to the boy.

“You’ll...Catch it…” Shion protested, far too weakly to hold any power in his words. Nezumi shook his head, embracing Shion under their heavy blankets. It was already far too warm for his comfort.

“I won’t. My immune system has had to take quite a bit more of a beating than yours. I’ll be alright. Besides, you’ve still got chills, right?” His keen eyes were fixed on Shion’s, who darted his gaze away immediately. “Don’t try to hide it. I’ve got to take care of you.” He snuggled in closer, directing Shion’s head into the crook of his neck and planting another soft kiss on his white hair.

“You’ll-”

Nezumi hushed the latest protest, and insisted that he get some rest.

I don’t know what I would have done if it were actually the virus.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Four days later, Nezumi’s on stage soliloquy was brought to a sudden halt by a loud, painful cough that tore through him.